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New Comedy, a genre created in ancient Greece, is recognized as one of the most popular comedic forms to this day. In contrast to dark and sarcastic Old Comedy, New Comedy separates itself from the current events, focusing on making the public laugh, not think. A light comedy that is not weighed down by political themes is always taken well by the audience.
The movie A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, directed by Richard Lester in 1966, is a classic example of New Comedy. The film tells a story of a cunning slave, Pseudolus, who tries to win his freedom by uniting his young master with a girl of his dreams. By integrating the tropes of New Comedy with the atmosphere of ancient Rome and American contemporary culture, the film A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum appealed to the American audience of the 1960s.
Tropes of New Comedy in the Film
New Comedy can be characterized by the use of stereotypic characters and slapstick comedy. The situations that occur between these distinct characters are the primary source of humor. The film A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum has a multitude of characters that fit this description. First of all, Pseudolus is the protagonist of the story. He constantly lies and cheats in hopes to win his freedom. Pseudolus represents the trope of a clever slave, who has to untangle a complicated situation, which was created by him in the first place.
The other trope is the boy in love, who is presented in the movie by Hero, Pseudolus’ master. These two characters contrast each other well as the boy is quite naïve, while the slave is shrewd. Hero’s parents also make up a pair of very recognizable character types – a controlling wife and a milquetoast husband. These two types are often used in situational comedy, a genre that that was very popular in the 1960s. The other heroes of the story: Captain Miles Gloriosus, Hysterium, and Marcus Lycus have very distinct personality traits as well.
The plot of the story is also complicated by such comedic devices as confusion, erroneous information, and time constraint. These tropes are followed in the movie in full. First of all, the basis of many humorous situations of New Comedy is presented by some characters confusing other characters with each other. For example, Philia, Hero’s love interest, thinks that Hero’s father is Captain Miles Glouriosus, to whom she is promised. The audience knows the characters well enough to understand this confusion.
This device can be presented as unintentional or deliberate. For instance, Pseudolus pretending to be Marcus Lycus is a purposeful confusion that furthers the plot. Secondly, the heroes in New Comedy often lie or conceal some information to rectify the situation. However, this only leads to the problem becoming more complicated than before. Time limit is another device utilized by New Comedy. In the film, for example, Pseudolus has only one day to fulfill his promise to Hero, which motivates him to make bold and sometimes irrational decisions.
Contemporary America of the 1960s
Many of the plot points rely on the time period of the film. The concepts of slaves, courtesans, and women sellers can be accepted as sources of humor for ancient Rome. The scenery and characters’ social positions allow the audience to identify the culture, while the dialogue in the film is not burdened by historical facts or complex language. The personalities of the heroes and their motives are universally recognizable. Therefore, the audience is able to view this comedy and understand the plot without any complications. The television channels of the 1960s broadcasted many films and series revolving around situational comedy. The counterculture movement allowed the directors to make movies with more controversial and sexual jokes. Some scenes of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum represent that shift in culture.
The film A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum can serve as an example of traditional New Comedy interpreted through contemporary culture. The movie’s characters have vibrant personalities that can be attributed to particular types, while the plot of the film is simple and universally recognizable. The abundance of physical comedy and slapstick also shows the New Comedy roots of the movie. The contemporary American audience was exposed to a variety of situational comedy shows that utilized similar types of characters and plot lines. Therefore, it was easy for them to understand and identify with the movie regardless of its time period and setting.